By: Atmanah Parab
I’ve had to reacquaint myself with many aspects of living at home since quarantine started. Whether it be abiding by my parent’s mandatory household vegetarian days or my sister stealing my fancy moisturizer. Bhajans played at frankly inconsiderate volumes that wake me up before my 10:30am alarm. The smell of dinner, pervasive and yet somehow welcome at the same time. All small changes I’ve reincorporated into my daily routine.
One heavier thing I’ve had to get used to are the twice-a-day calls to Mumbai to check on my grandfather. In 2016, my grandfather had a severe stroke that resulted in paralysis from head to toe of the left side. Since then, the structure of my family’s life has changed to include trips to India whenever financially possible to check on him. A part-time ward boy was appointed to take care of my grandfather’s medical treatment but after the death of my grandmother, the ward boy and his family had to move in full-time to make sure someone was always looking after my grandfather.
This brings us to the current date. In the time of COVID-19, movement is limited and fear is unending. For the first few days of quarantine, I spent my days in a bubble. I was annoyed and bored as only those privileged enough to be complacent can be. My immediate family was safely at home and non-immunocompromised, as long as we stayed inside, this crisis would blow over soon.
This facade of peace was shattered by the realization that while coronavirus was spreading rapidly in the United States, it was also spreading in Mumbai, where the rest of my family is.
I see a field of matches and fire, unencumbered, engulfing them all in the blink of an eye. In my fearful mind’s eye, Mumbai feels like this grid of matches. The first thing to understand is that Mumbai is not a city of easily recognized structure. It is a civilization built into the sea and reaching for the sky to hold its bustling population. Pavement dwellings built from a hodgepodge of materials with hammered tin roofs are often a two-minute distance from brick and mortar buildings oozing from the humidity, and those yet, are ten minutes from sleek high-rises with balconies to clap from. That is, if you’re not counting the worst traffic you could imagine. One thing is evident in this organized chaos, Mumbai is a city of its many, many people. It is incredibly common for multiple generations of a family to live in one house, after all that is the way my family has lived for decades back. In an area like this, social distancing poses a glaringly obvious challenge.
The second thing to understand is that in some eyes, my father has failed in his most important duty. As the only son of a relatively traditional Indian family, it is a part of his duty to take care of his parents in their old age. The roles he plays and how they conflict are only thrown into sharper relief with financial pressure to perform at his highest capacity, make sure his daughters and wife are safe and to make sure that his father is being cared for, over the phone with no way of physically going over there. All he can do is make sure to check in as much as possible and take care of his father through the phone. Some calls are sadder than others, there are days where even the smallest movements normally possible through physical therapy are simply too much for my grandfather. On other days he can’t seem to remember any of us. On the worst days, he’s unwell and fragile and the distance between California and Mumbai seems too far to help.
Kishore is the name of the ward boy who takes care of my grandfather. Him and his family now live in the same flat that my grandparents had inhabited for the past 20 years. In the words of my mother “it was God’s grace and our good karma that we found him”. In the past few months, their stay in our family flat has brought a new wave of excitement: Kishore’s wife recently gave birth to a baby boy. In the midst of one of the most widespread public health crises and in a house that was previously a makeshift hospital room, new life was breathed in. It was in sleepless nights and coordinating with doctors to make sure that she received the best care that the news impacted my household here in the states, but in the days since the birth, my parents have added cooing at the baby sleeping soundly into their daily routine. A bracing reminder that no matter what, life will go on and family and love can still bring joy. That we as human beings can still be here for each other and fight for each other from a distance.
The coronavirus is a physical threat, with many psychological side effects: fear, anxiety and guilt. At this time, the only real certainty is uncertainty and it’s hard to find silver linings when the world feels as if it’s been thrown into chaos, but despite whatever has happened and whatever will happen, humanity has the capability to look out for each other and to love. So the next time my father Facetimes India and I get to see my grandfather’s face, more delicate and sallow than I’ve ever seen it in real life, I’ll remember that it is our luck and love that keeps him alive. Though he will be struggling to remember me and wave at the phone, it’s another day that he’s safe and for now that will have to be peace.